John Winsbury tackles the upper slopes of Mount Alyeska.
John 'enjoying' the downhill part of the course.
Finishing the 19th World Mountain Running Trophy.
North to Alaska
The following article was published in Number 65 of SCT's newsletter Tuggie Athlete. It was written by John Winsbury following his trip to Alaska to represent Australia in the 2003 World Mountain Running Trophy. This was the first time John had been selected to wear the green and gold colours of Australia.
After 36 editions, 'Running Writing' has finally reached the finish tape in April 2004. Stories which in the past have appeared on Running Writing are now published in both the paper and online versions of 'Tuggie Athlete' magazine.
Girdwood, Alaska - After enjoying several days of race preparation in unseasonably crisp, clear, sunny weather, athletes from around the globe were presented with an icy reception for the 19th World Mountain Running Trophy on September 20-21. More than 250 athletes representing 27 countries came to compete in the event. In the early hours of Saturday morning snowflakes the size of fifty-cent pieces began to fall. By day's end, thick snowfall left over 5 inches of white at the top of Mount Alyeska. The junior men's and women's races began the day's competition on an trail which had been quickly declared the toughest yet, made even more challenging with the majority of the uphill section of the course turned into a single track. I found myself holding the Irish flag cheering for several juniors as we did not have any juniors in the Australian team. The afternoon brought heavier snowfall and a further drop in temperature. Our three Senior women lined up for a 7.7km race where survival was the highest priority. Racing flats would normally be the shoe of choice but for this race a trail shoe with knobbly tread would reign supreme. All three got the top of the course together, Louise Fairfax, however, fortunately brought a pair of shoes with knobbly tread and was able to navigate the downhill gaining precious time to finish 46th in a time of 48.34. Susan Clark came in 63rd (54.28) and June Petrie 64th (54.43). Melissa Moon from New Zealand won the race convincingly in a time of 39.02, with a 39-second gap to second place.
As the next day dawned athletes looked anxiously towards the mountain to see what mother nature had in store for the open and senior men's races. Mount Alyeska's upper slopes were shrouded in fog and snowing lightly. Our team manager Bert Pilgrim got to prove he is made of the tough stuff and ran in the open men's race coming in 12th in a time of 68 minutes. Bert provided us with important knowledge about the condition of the course. Basically, the thin trail up the mountain was a mix of mud, slush and grass lined by a blanket of white. The downhill gravel section was clear of snow for most of it. This meant that I had to make use of the downhills to gain position. I had gone over this course several times since arriving in Alaska. Each time I became more confident that I could be competitive, but when the snow began to fall I knew that my chances were now slim unless I could get my hands on a pair of fell running shoes. I spent part of Saturday night and Sunday morning searching for a pair to no avail. Kevin laws managed to find a pair and so he lent me his racing flats that had some grip at the front.
Before I knew it I was in the pen with a 30-minute wait until the gun went off. I completed my race preparation and tried to keep warm. The air was electric. Everyone wanted to get into it. Having your race last adds to the tension. I remembered the look of relief on the girl's faces when it had finished. The Australian senior men's team consisted of Ben du Bois, Steven Page, Kevin Laws and myself. There were 115 competitors from 27 different nations. Each country had a starting lane with their best runner at the front. We drew lane 18, right in the middle of the pack, so as you could imagine it was hard to gain a good position unless you were in the front and were willing to sprint for the first 600 meters. With 5 minutes to go we were in our lanes and wishing each other the best of luck.
The sound of starters gun echoed through the air and we were off, jostling for position. I was quickly covered in mud from those in front of me. I was locked in the middle of the pack, getting pushed from all sides with no gaps in sight. I began to get annoyed with my situation so I had to find an escape route. I found a small gap and charged forward. I could see Steven up ahead but there were at least 30 runners between us. I ran on the edge of the fire trail to try and gain position. Twenty meters ahead the trail narrowed into a single file track and it was a long line of runners in front of me. The pace began to slow and the challenge became apparent - to stay upright and pass slower runners without stepping out onto the snow. By the time I reached the top of the course I was getting frustrated, with every step just fighting just to stay upright. The course was a lined by a sea of spectators complete with cowbells and light snowfall. It reminded me of scenes from the 'Tour de France' where there is barely any room for the competitors. The last few meters before the top was just a mud bath and it was impossible for me remain upright. I scrambled my way to the top to the sound of screams from my fellow Aussies. I took a look down at the trail and saw Steven nearing the turn around point. I put on the speed down the hill to try and bridge the gap. We had to run back up half of the mountain before continuing to the bottom. I passed 6 athletes on the way down to the turn around point and was still relatively fresh with adrenaline pumping through my veins. I used every available bit of grass to get some push off and began to make up more ground. Got back up to the top quicker than I thought I would and began the long decent. I started to increase the speed with some hesitation but figured that it was my only chance at improving my position and giving the race my all. I was gaining on him with every stride and by the bottom I had passed 12 runners and was hot on his heels. We had one last 600 eter hill before the final downhill which was where he became aware of me and we charged forward pushing each other faster passing more runners with each stride. Pushed out the last kilometre with all we could muster. Steven put 4 seconds on me in the final meters. I crossed the line a very happy man.
I ended up placing 71st in a time of 59.34. Marco De Gasperi from Italy won the race, in a time of 50.29. He was the champion of the previous last up and down. So, the final result for the Aussies was as follows: 42. Ben du Bois 56.57, 70. Steven Page 59.29, (71. John Winsbury 59.34) and 81. Kevin Laws 1.02.11.
Spent the afternoon in the Spa relaxing and yabbering to friends and then attending the closing ceremony. The next morning I headed back to Anchorage for two more days before flying out. Went to the local running shop and bought some great studded racing flats for a discounted price, the only catch was I had to do 20 chin ups. Since arriving back home I have had the time to reflect on the race and I believe I was very lucky to have such an opportunity with such unique conditions. I learnt many important lessons that will assist in my mental preparation for future races. I would like to thank SCT for their financial support in my endeavours and the Australian Mountain Running Association.